New Mexico Senate passes bill to create constitutional commission
By WALTER RUBEL/ Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative
LAS CRUCES, N.M. — While the U.S. Constitution has not been amended since 1992, voters in New Mexico make changes to our founding document every two years. Yet despite that constant tinkering, the New Mexico’s Constitution is still badly antiquated and unsuited to meet the needs of the state today, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said Thursday, March 4, in support of Senate Bill 367.
The bill, which passed 40–2 and now moves to the House, would create a 15-member Constitutional Revision Commission, which would contrast the state constitution with those of other states and review the findings of previous such commissions held in 1967 and 1994, and then recommend changes to the Legislature.
“My vision is a New Mexico that is a modern state that governs itself in a modern way, and right now we’re not doing that,” Cervantes said.
The best example of that, he said, is the rotating system of 60-day sessions in odd-numbered years, and 30-day sessions in even-numbered years which are limited to the state budget and items approved by the governor.
“I’ve asked myself, why would the framers of our state constitution have done that? What was the thinking behind that?” Cervantes said. “I believe they did that because they didn’t want the laws to change too much, too quickly, in 1912, and some of that was just practical.
“They had to reprint all of the statute books using typeset printing presses and then distribute them throughout the state, he said. “We live in a completely different era than the founders envisioned in 1912, and we should adopt that change.”
Along with the governing piece, there are also parts of the state constitution that are outdated or offensive, Cervantes said.
“We have language in our constitution that, frankly, we should be embarrassed about,” Cervantes said. “There’s language in our constitution that talks about the proper role of women, what women should be allowed and should not be allowed to do. It’s in our constitution.”
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, agreed, saying that in leafing through the constitution he found items on things like the eight-hour work day and polygamy that didn’t belong in the constitution.
The bill passed with nearly a unanimous vote after a floor amendment by Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, that would require a three-fifths majority by the commission for any recommendation. That will ensure that at least one member from the minority party will have to agree with the recommendation for it to be approved.
“I support the idea of looking into these constitutional issues, I just want to take the politics out of it. This would require some smidgeon of bipartisanship,” Schmedes said. “If this commission meets and makes a party-line recommendation, this bill will be completely useless and a failure, in my opinion.”
Cervantes agreed, and the amendment was passed 27–13.
The two votes against the overall bill came from Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, and William Sharer, R-Farmington. Pinto objected to the floor amendment. Sharer had deeper concerns.
“I’m very concerned that this commission will meet, and we’ll talk about things like freedom of religion,” Sharer said. “Under today’s system, where we’re not able to say anything that might cross big brother, or big sister, whatever the case may be, this is very scary stuff,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re going to say freedom of religion is wrong.”
There are three ways to change the New Mexico Constitution, the most common being the piecemeal approach in which joint resolutions are passed by the Legislature and put before the voters. Two amendments were on the ballot last year, and both passed.
A report in 2016 found that, at the time, there had been 306 proposed amendments put to the voters since statehood, with 171 passing, according to the fiscal impact report on SB367. The numbers have gone up since then. There are 31 proposed constitutional amendments under consideration during this year’s session.
The second way to change the constitution is through a constitutional convention initiated by a vote of at least two-thirds of the Legislature and then put to the voters. A constitutional convention was held in 1969, but its proposed slate of changes was narrowly rejected by voters.
The third way to change the constitution was adopted in 1996, allowing an independent commission to propose amendments either individually or as a single ballot question. This is the first attempt at forming such a commission.
Cervantes urged lawmakers to review the reports done in 1967 and 1994.
“It’s fascinating. So many of the issues they were looking at then, we still are looking at today,” he said. “Should we have a citizen’s legislature?”
Walter Rubel can be reached at email@example.com